Australian Students Capture Dancing Galaxies

For the second consecutive year, high school students from across Australia joined in a competition to obtain scientifically useful (and aesthetically pleasing) images using the Gemini Observatory. The 2010 winning student team suggested that Gemini focus on an interacting galaxy pair which, they assured, "would be more than just a pretty picture." The spectacular result of this contest, organized by the Australian Gemini Office (AusGO), can be seen at

The team, made up of students from the Sydney Girls High School (SGHS) Astronomy Club in central Sydney, proposed that Gemini investigate the galaxy pair NGC 6872 and IC 4970. The two galaxies are embraced in a graceful galactic dance that, as the team described in the essay to support their entry, "...will also serve to illustrate the situation faced by the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy in millions of years."

The Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS), in its imaging mode on the Gemini South telescope in Chile, collected the photons for the stunning new image. At an event held at SGHS on March 22, 2011 (see Figure 2), the winning team and teachers viewed the image for the first time and filled the room with "oohs" and "aahs" when Christopher Onken (Australian National University/AusGO) unveiled it. Assisting Onken, Angel Lopez-Sanchez (Australian Astronomical Observatory/Macquarie University) highlighted many features of the image and explained galaxy interactions using computer animations and simulations.

The primary galaxy in the image (NGC 6872) exemplifies what happens when galaxies interact and their original structure and form is distorted. When galaxies like these grapple with each other, gravity tugs at their structures, catapulting spiral arms out to enormous distances. In NGC 6872, the arms have been stretched out to span hundreds of thousands of light-years -- many times further than the spiral arms of our own Milky Way galaxy. Over hundreds of millions of years, NGC 6872's arms will fall back toward the central part of the galaxy, and the companion galaxy (IC 4970) will eventually be merged into NGC 6872. The coalescence of galaxies often leads to a burst of new star formation. Already, the blue light of recently created star clusters dot the outer reaches of NGC 6872's elongated arms. Dark fingers of dust and gas along the arms soak up the visible light. That dust and gas is the raw material out of which future generations of stars could be born.

Searching for these dynamics was a key feature in the essay written by the winning team. To justify the scientific merit of obtaining this image, the team suggested, "If enough color data is obtained in the image it may reveal easily accessible information about the different populations of stars, star formation, relative rate of star formation due to the interaction, and the extent of dust and gas present in these galaxies." The team also presented a more emotional perspective by looking at the impact this image might have on people trying to understand our place in the universe. When viewers consider this image "in contrast to their daily life," the team explained, "there is a significant possibility of a new awareness or perception of the age and scale of the universe, and their part in it."

Once the student essays from across Australia were submitted, a volunteer committee (representing science, education, journalism and art) carefully reviewed the submissions to determine a winner. Once the winning team emerged, work began to collect the data. Travis Rector (University of Alaska, Anchorage) planned the details of the observations and selected filters that would bring out the beautiful features of the colliding galaxies when the image was obtained later in 2010.

All three of the top entries earned their classes a "Live from Gemini" event, using a video link between the students and the Gemini control room, for an interactive introduction to the observatory by members of Gemini's education staff. Each of the classes came prepared with probing questions about black holes, galaxies, and exoplanets, which were answered by staff at Gemini's base facility in Hilo Hawai'i.

Ian Lightbody, who advised the Runner-Up school of Forest Lake College, comments, "The students had a great time and learned a lot. I know I did!"

A new contest is under way for Australian students in 2011, and more details can be found at

Images and additional information:



Science Contacts: Dr. Christopher Onken (contest coordinator) Deputy Australian Gemini Scientist Australian National University +61 2 6125 8039 ; cell: +61 425 174 383

Dr. Stuart Ryder Australian Gemini Scientist Australian Astronomical Observatory +61 2 9372 4843; cell: +61 419 970 834

Media Contacts: Peter Michaud Gemini Observatory, Hilo, HI +1 808-974-2510; cell: +1 808-936-6643

Helen Sim Australian Astronomical Observatory, Epping +61 2 9372-4251; cell: +61 419 635 905

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The Gemini Observatory is an international collaboration with two identical 8-meter telescopes. The Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope is located on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i (Gemini North) and the other telescope on Cerro Pachon in central Chile (Gemini South); together the twin telescopes provide full coverage over both hemispheres of the sky. The telescopes incorporate technologies that allow large, relatively thin mirrors, under active control, to collect and focus both visible and infrared radiation from space.

The Gemini Observatory provides the astronomical communities in seven partner countries with state-of-the-art astronomical facilities that allocate observing time in proportion to each country's contribution. In addition to financial support, each country also contributes significant scientific and technical resources. The national research agencies that form the Gemini partnership include: the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the Canadian National Research Council (NRC), the Chilean Comision Nacional de Investigacion Cientifica y Tecnologica (CONICYT), the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Argentinean Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Cientificas y Tecnicas (CONICET) and the Brazilian Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Cientifico e Tecnologico CNPq). The observatory is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the NSF. The NSF also serves as the executive agency for the international partnership.

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